Conquered and conquerors: Vikings

In the Middle Ages, England faced a number of invasions from the Norse people living in Norway and Denmark. These raiders were known as Vikings. They attacked and invaded lands overseas to get riches and slaves which they brought back to their home countries. Some Vikings settled in the lands that they raided. They came to England after 793, and then to Northern France, where they established Normandy (the land of the Northman) in the early 10th century.

This led to Scandinavian, mainly Danish, migrants travelling to Britain from the 9th century onwards. They often settled in eastern half of England. The Anglo-Saxons, who formed the majority of the people of England at that time, fought back, and Alfred, the King of Wessex, defeated the Vikings’ Great Heathen Army in 878 at the Battle of Edington.

The Danish leader of the Vikings, Guthrum, made a peace settlement with Alfred that included the condition that Guthrum and his followers become Christian. Guthrum and Alfred divided the kingdoms of England between them, and the eastern part was known as the Danelaw, where the Danes ruled with their own laws. Many Danes settled in the kingdoms of East Anglia and Northumbria.

Timeline of the key struggles between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes in the Medieval period
  • During the 10th century, the Anglo-Saxons continued to fight back against the Danes, and by 954 the Danes had lost control of all their English territories and retreated back to Denmark.
  • The Danes returned towards the end of the 10th century and the English king, Ethelred the Unready, paid them large sums of money to not attack his kingdom.
  • In 1002 Ethelred ordered the massacre of all Danes living in English territories. This became known as the St. Brice’s Day Massacre.
  • The Danes came back for vengeance in 1003 under Sweyn Forkbeard, who eventually conquered Ethelred’s English forces in 1013 and became King of England. He died in 1014, giving Ethelred a chance to return.
  • The Danes finally secured the throne of England in 1016 under Sweyn’s son Cnut. King Cnut then married Emma of Normandy, Ethelred’s widow. This meant that Danish people became integrated into the English kingdom during the early 11th century.